“When I was a swimmer at the University of Colorado in the early 70s, we shared the locker room with a cross country ski team. And at that point, I’d been swimming since childhood. And as I mentioned, I was on a scholarship to swim for the university. But I was fascinated by the whole thing about cross country skiing, and I got– At that point all of the skiers, they imported all their skiers from Norway. And so I began to chat with these Norwegian guys and then I started to train with them.
I go out and run and train around the town of Boulder where I lived. And then they suggested that I come skiing with them and they sort of taught me how to ski. And I thought this is so much cooler than looking at a lane line for five hours a day. Then I sort of segwayed out of swimming into cross country skiing that way as sort of a backdoor into the sport.”
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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today was coach to five different Olympians and numerous national champions in cross country skiing. Somewhat surprisingly, and I’m definitely gonna dig into this, he was a competitive swimmer at division in school at the University of Colorado. He’s a former Pro Cross Country Skier racing in the World Cup circuit as well as spending a couple of years racing as a pro triathlete.
Nowadays, he does a little bit more with authorship. He is a co-author for Training For the New Alpinism with Steve House, has gone on to sell over 100,000 copies. And the book we want to talk about today, he co-authored Training for the Uphill Athlete: A Manual for Mountain Runners and Ski Mountaineers, and it is definitely a manual for sure. Welcome to the show, Scott Johnston.
SCOTT: Thanks, Jesse. Thanks for having me on.
JESSE: Thanks for sending me the copy of the book. I always like talking to authors but I always like getting my hands on a book before I have a chance to talk to you so that then I have some context of what you’ve done and we can dive in a little bit deeper instead of me just saying, tell me about the book.
SCOTT: Sure, sure. I get it.
JESSE: So, before we get too deep, I mean the book obviously is surrounding I’ll say Alpine-type sports. But you’ve got a background in swimming and then you’ve raced professionally as a triathlete for a while. Tell me about starting there and then making the switch over to cross country skiing.
SCOTT: Sure. Well, when I was a swimmer at the University of Colorado in the early 70s, we shared the locker room with a cross country ski team. And at that point, I’d been swimming since childhood. And as I mentioned, I was on a scholarship to swim for the university. But I was fascinated by the whole thing about cross country skiing, and I got– At that point all of the skiers, they imported all their skiers from Norway. And so I began to chat with these Norwegian guys and then I started to train with them.
I go out and run and train around the town of Boulder where I lived. And then they suggested that I come skiing with them and they sort of taught me how to ski. And I thought this is so much cooler than looking at a lane line for five hours a day. Then I sort of segwayed out of swimming into cross country skiing that way as sort of a backdoor into the sport.
JESSE: Was it a matter of like, feeling burnt out in the pool or just, it seems, I guess, as an outsider looking in, it seems tough to say, well, you’re already at a pretty high level. I mean, you’re competing at a divisional in school in a sport, and to make a transition out of that sport into something else, it seems almost like you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. So, was it burnout, or was it motivation, or was it just so much more fun to be skiing?
SCOTT: That’s a great question and it was a little of both. So, I had spent the two years previous years before going to college living at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and training as part of, for what I guess nowadays we’d call it sort of a development group of young swimmers. And we trained at the Air Force Academy pool, but we lived in the– because there was no– at that time and I don’t know if there is now, there was no pool at the Olympic Training Center.
JESSE: There is now, yeah.
SCOTT: But yeah, it was pretty rudimentary. It was an old military base that had kind of been converted over and we lived in these really, these dormitories of bunk beds, that sort of thing. And, I mean, literally, all we did was eat, sleep, and train. And when I say five hours a day, we were in the pool five hours a day. We kind of averaged around 20,000 meters a day.
And so doing that from the age of 16 to 18 wore on me. I mean, it made me a very good swimmer, of course, through my high school career, had a really high-level career there, which allowed me to go to a school like this school– get a scholarship to go to that college. But when I got into college, I think I was sort of approaching the burnout phase.
So, I went to the Olympic trials in 1972, and I missed making the team. And I think at that point, the time horizon of thinking of waiting another four years was just inconceivable to me. I mean, [??? 06:24] not as young and impulsive and had a fairly short time horizon, I just said– I felt and this is maybe the wrong way to put it, but I felt like I can just prostitute myself for a college education.
I mean, I can go through the motions. I don’t even have to train that hard and I can still be one of the best guys on the team, and just get my education and do my job as a swimmer. But my love for swimming was fading pretty fast at that point after the Olympic trials.
JESSE: I know [??? 06:58] a lot of collegiate athletes experience burnout because they’ve worked so hard to get there and then from high school to college, there’s that step up in competitiveness. In your case, it happened earlier, when you’re at the [??? 07:12] and doing that training.
But it’s hard to explain and then there’s just step-ups the whole way up; from collegiate to pro, and then low-level pros on up. So, burnout is such a real threat that I don’t think people who haven’t been through kind of the system in their own sport, realize how much it creeps up.
SCOTT: That I completely agree and I’ve actually written extensively you might notice in the book about overtraining syndrome. I mean, that is a big problem for endurance athletes and it’s often not really talked very much about, which is one of the reasons I’ve written articles on our website and in the books because I’ve dealt with quite a few overtrained athletes, myself included when I was competing.
And that was the reason I did not make the Olympic team in 1972. I went into the trials overtrained and I was flat. So, I think it is quite possible and maybe even more so in endurance sports, than speed and power sports to become overtrained because the metabolic load is so high on the body, because you’re training five hours a day, and it really takes– and at a fairly high intensity so it can really drain you.
JESSE: When you talked about it in the book and I’ve seen this mention other places as well about when you’re thinking about overtraining and then getting in competition, it’s better to be slightly undertrained than it is to be overtrained at all.
SCOTT: Absolutely. Yeah. I try to err– I mean one of the lessons I have learned over many, many years now of coaching is [??? 09:00] much rather send an athlete into competition undertrained than overtrained. Because when you’re undertrained, most of these athletes that you have in your audience, and that I’ve dealt with, they’re already type-A overachievers. And you don’t need to give them a kick in the pants to get them to do the work. What they really need a coach for is somebody to restrain them from doing too much and damaging themselves.
And what I find is if you take somebody who’s fit and fresh and you put them in competition, they’re going to be able to go to that well and dig really deep and get that last 2% out of it. But if you send somebody in there and the well is dry, then no amount of willpower will help that person. So, I’ve kind of adhered to that philosophy for my– Once I learned my own lesson with it, and tried to avoid it dramatically.
JESSE: I feel like that’s the toughest part and I know I’ve been through it having been overtrained and it ruined, I’ll say ruined. It’s a little melodramatic. But my best year in college and my junior year in track season, all the way from the very first meet of indoor up until the conference championship and outdoor, I had a PR in every single event every week, just crushing it. And most times it was like, okay, here’s a second to here or there. But it was still just progressively faster.
And then by the time the conference rolled around, I was just tanked. And I went from running like 15:50 for my 5K to like 16:40 because I just had nothing. I had nothing in the legs to give. And so it’s like– and it’s not like I was coached by inexperienced athletes. My coach is a Division One runner, and he had been through that kind of stuff. So, it’s like watching it in your own athletes, you experiencing it, trying to learn from other people and avoid it. It almost seems like many of us, myself, certainly included, are just not smart enough to avoid it without having gone through it ourselves.
SCOTT: Well, and even if you’ve gone through it, it’s a very difficult thing for people to wrap their heads around. Because when you were at your worst overtrained state, if you’d gone to a medical doctor and said something’s wrong with me, he’d look at you and thought you are a peak physical specimen. What do you mean something’s wrong with you? I mean, you’re better off than 99% of the patients that come to see that guy.
So, you can’t get medical help, usually for overtraining because they don’t understand it and you’re already– you appear very, very healthy. And I think that what– So, what happens is people end up because of this sort of type-A personality type that we deal with in most endurance sports where in general, more is better until the wheels come off, it’s better.
And what happens with those type-A people is they’re very reluctant to accept the fact that the wheels have started to come off. And so they will see like, for me, when you said [??? 12:15] head started setting PRs, like that’s the biggest red flag for overtraining. When somebody just starts nailing their best performance over and over again, what I’ve seen or what I’ve done with athletes, when that happens is we take a break. We go back to some base training, we lower the intensity, we lower the volume, because you’re at such a high level of fitness, in that you’re probably in a whole new realm of fitness when you were setting all those PRs.
JESSE: Right. And it was an– [crosstalk] time.
SCOTT: Yeah, exactly. Your body’s not really adapted to– That’s not your normal level, that’s a peak level, and you can’t hold that peak for very long. And it might be that through a course of training over the next couple of years you could have those PRs could become kind of your standard paces. They wouldn’t necessarily be PRs anymore. But at that time, they represented a whole new peak in fitness for you. And the coach can then say, okay, Jesse’s looking too sharp right now.
I mean, I’ve had to do this with cross country skiers leading into the Olympics and say, we’re going back to some base training for two weeks. They’re getting to fit, we’re too far away from the Olympics right now. And so I’ve– That’s kind of been one of my strategies for dealing with that thing. I was at a coaching conference about five or six years ago and one of the presenters, this was actually around 2000, was with Alberto Salazar, Mo Farah, and Galen Rupp [??? 13:52] of course, two of his athletes, I think it was right after the Beijing Olympics games, so what does that spell, quite long ago.
And he was saying that he never wants to see his athletes PR during a taper. He says if they’re starting to PR, that means they’re getting too sharp too quickly. And I think that makes a lot of sense. And it sounds like it’s sort of what happened with you when you weren’t tapering, perhaps because you were in the midst of competition. And that might even be a worse situation where the training load is probably still fairly high, you were racing fairly often.
And if you can see that and improving performance, that’s definitely a red flag. And then the thing that I’ve noticed with athletes that are falling into that overtraining or they’re kind of falling off the overtraining cliff is as soon as they start to see their performance degrading, whether it’s in competition or in training, their first instinct is oh, I’m not as fit as I was, I need to do more something, more volume. But usually, it’s more intensity.
They think I just don’t feel as sharp as I did two weeks ago. So, I think I need to do extra intervals this week or something like that. And of course, all that does is push them even further over the cliff. And if you keep that up for very long, you can dig yourself into a hole out of which some athletes never recover. I have seen athletes and actually there’s an article on our website, I think this is a really big problem amongst ultra runners, and I coach a few of them.
I coached a few professional ultra runners and the roadside is littered with overtrained ultra runners because there’s a sport where more is better, quite dramatically. And some of those people, they never run competitively again once they become overtrained because it’s taken such a toll on them. So, I’m really cautious about overtraining. I think it’s a subject that needs more discussion and more coaches need to be– I’ve met an awful lot of coaches who had no clue of what overtraining was. They just said, oh, you just– Go ahead. Excuse me.
JESSE: No, you’re all right. Yeah, I mean, looking back at that season, it’s like, as an athlete doing it, it’s like, well, this is awesome. I love PRing every week. Clearly, I’m getting better. But as you’re looking back, the thing I take issue with is probably we were competing every weekend, which is too much for endurance athletes. Even though like our down weeks, I wouldn’t run the 5K every weekend. It would be maybe I run the 5K one week and I run like the 800 and a mile the next week or something. But it’s still every single weekend plus training during the week.
It’s just a very high level of stress and very little recovery time, plus talking about a jump in fitness, you’re very correct there. I had dropped over a minute on my 5K time from the previous year to there. Which I’m not even quite sure how I did it, but mostly willpower because that’s– you really shouldn’t be able to do that. So, yeah, it was all these things kind of coming together that just ended up in kind of a very disastrous [??? 17:25] championship. And then injuries the next year that basically waylaid me my entire senior year.
SCOTT: Yeah. I mean, it’s a common story. And overtraining is often what leads to that burnout you were talking about earlier when athletes just throw in the towel and say I’ve had enough, I can’t deal with this anymore. They’re constantly feeling like crap when they’re overtrained. My definition of overtraining, which I didn’t invent, but I have a 500-page book called Overtraining in Sport. That’s how serious I am about it. And one of the things that– the way I define overtraining is that what was once a perfectly tolerable training load is now a completely intolerable training load.
So, something that would have allowed you to recover within, let’s say, 24 hours of that workout, now, you will never recover. I mean, you can do that workout and you don’t get any sort of super-compensation effect, you don’t become fitter from that workout, you just feel worse and more tired. And that’s when it can escalate. Because like I said before, people will say, oh, I’m just not fit enough. I need to train more, I need to train harder. And that just drives them further down in that hole.
JESSE: So, you’re saying if you see that happening, that kind of like, well, the symptoms and potential overtraining in terms of peaking too soon, [??? 18:53] PRs. You’re saying you mentioned that you take your athletes back down like we’ll do a couple of weeks of base to try to prevent that. Do you get pushback from your athletes when you do that?
SCOTT: I have a couple of times. And unfortunately, the athlete one, in particular, most recently a few years ago prior to the Olympics and cross country skiing, this athlete pushed back said no, no, I need to continue this training. He was on and in a progression of intensity workouts that were building and building. But he wasn’t recovering well. And I could see– I clearly saw that he was overtrained. And I finally talked him into taking two weeks literally off, no training whatsoever. And then he wanted to just dive straight back into the same progression at the same place he had left off.
And sure enough, it flattened him out, and he was overtraining the entire season. This was leading in the fall leading into their competition season. But anybody who, I mean maybe because I kind of beat this overtraining drum a lot, I get a lot of people writing emails or setting up phone consultations that are overtrained. And I don’t get pushed back very often, just because I think I’m one of the few people that has dealt with overtraining a lot in quite a few different sports.
But it is very difficult for the athlete to hear that all this fitness that you have built up in the past is now gotta go basically you’re gonna be lost during the– maybe you end up having to take two months off of training if you get really overtrained, and if that’s the case, at the end of those two months, you’re going to have lost a great deal of fitness. And that is a really scary proposition for a professional athlete or anybody who’s really keen on what they’re doing.
Like, they just can’t believe that that would happen. And I’ve seen it happen. Maybe you recognize this in your own case in one workout, where they went from feeling like Superman the day before to never recovering. They’re not recovering for weeks afterwards doing one hard workout and had just pushed them right over that edge I was talking about. So, anyway, maybe we’ve talked enough about overtraining. It’s a deep subject, and it’s one I’m really interested in, but I know that people [??? 21:15] interested in other stuff too.
JESSE: So, one thing we got going and I was gonna teach you a little bit when we got started. So, first, I was gonna ask you, where were you like, eight, 10 months ago? I have to think about it now. I guess it was back in November. So, I had spent a considerable number of years trying to become a pro triathlete. I’m not quite fast enough. Like my 5K time I mentioned, I’m not really fast enough to compete with the big boys, but I was trying it nonetheless, just because why not?
So, I stopped doing that and then I kind of felt myself floating about without much of a goal or orientation training. And one of my college coaches grew up in Manitou Springs. If you’re familiar with the area, you probably know where I’m going.
SCOTT: Yes, oh yeah.
JESSE: So, I said, okay, and at the time, he was like, you have to come out and run the incline. I had never done it. So, I said, okay, let’s– I told my current coach, I said, let’s train for the incline. I’m in Kansas City so elevation is not very high and elevation starts at 6,000 feet at the bottom of the incline and it goes to the top at 8,000. So, that’s when Joe sent me, got me a copy of the book.
I was like, Scott, I could have used you like eight, 10 months ago getting ready for doing the incline. So, if I was going to do the incline again given that I’m in an area that’s low elevation, and really it has no comparable terrain to something so steep, what would you suggest I do to approach that?
SCOTT: Well, that’s kind of an easy question for me, frankly, because– Steve and I run a coaching, my co-author of the book, we run a coaching business and we coach hundreds of athletes all over the world for Mountain Sports. Many of them live in– not in Kansas City but in places like Kansas City. They live in big cities without any mountainous terrain around them, and they’re faced with that exact same thing. Maybe they live in Manhattan and they’re training forever.
So, I trained a stockbroker to climb Everest and he did all of his workouts in fire stairs inside of tall buildings. He just happened to work in like a 60 story building or something like that. And so whatever, I don’t know how tall those buildings are. They look crazy tall to me. I’ve never been there. So, he did all of his workouts there. And it prepared him really well.
In fact, he’s one of only two people to have ever climbed– Excuse me, one of only six people to have ever climbed to 8000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen in one season. And I mean, this guy’s a stockbroker. So, it can be done. You have to get a little creative with your training. One thing is in your case, especially going from sea level to 6,000 feet, your performance is going to be heavily impacted.
I mean there’s about 25% loss of oxygen at 6,000 feet than there is where you live. So, right away, you know that you’re not going to be– even if you’re very fit, you’re going to see a performance degradation by going to that sort of elevation and of course, it gets much worse as you go higher.
Luckily, that elevation isn’t so high that you have to probably worry about any sort of altitude-induced illness like any sort of what we would call AMS, Acute Mountain Sickness is one of the terms for it. So, I want to take a quick step back, the thing that I find most interesting about– people often wonder, you coach these more conventional sports or you’ve done these more conventional sports; how do they relate to these unconventional Mountain Sports? everything from climbing big mountains to doing 100-mile races through the mountains? And the way they’re related is that training for endurance is training for endurance.
In other words, they’re the fundamental principles of you training for your 5K on the track you know, they’re exactly the same principles that I would use for someone on Everest.
Now, the emphasis is slightly different because speed is not a factor on Everest. I mean, there’s not enough oxygen, you can’t move very fast. So, they don’t need the kind of leg power that you needed when you were running 800 and 1,500-meter races, but your muscles don’t know what they’re doing. I’ve told people, you might be climbing those final slopes on Everest, or you might be running a 10K in your local park, and your leg muscles don’t know, they don’t know any different.
And so what I’ve done in both of our books is taken conventional well understood endurance sports training methodologies and revamped them slightly to fit these somewhat unique mountain sports. But there’s nothing new. I didn’t invent anything new. I didn’t do anything new, except kind of repurpose this conventional knowledge.
And having been a part of a training group at the Olympic Training Center and having had a lot of high-level coaches, and having gotten tested upside down and sideways for years; I always had a lot of questions for the physiologist that were doing the test or the coaches. Like, well, why are we doing that? Or why don’t we do this, or what does that test result mean?
And so when I finished my real athletic career, and I began to get interested in coaching, I mentioned this earlier when we were off the air, I sort of fell into a coaching job because people knew that I had this background in cross country skiing. I moved to a new place. They had a very active Junior racing program. And they said, “Hey, would you coach these kids?” And I was enthusiastic about it and said sure and then after I said, sure, I [??? 27:21] went, “Oh, I don’t really know anything about coaching.
And so I immediately went out and bought all sorts of books on first of all coaching kids and exercise physiology and just began to kind of cram for this. And I had 120 kids in the program out of which I’ve produced probably, I don’t know 10, 15 national championships.
And it was very successful. And during that period, which lasted about eight years, I was taking these ideas that I had– some of which I learned while I was competing both as a swimmer and a skier, and through my reading, and making them applicable to juniors.
Because what you do with kids under– like junior, I mean under 20 in most sports, what you do with those kids through those teenage years when they’re going through puberty, their bodies are developing really fast. How you train those people is quite different than the way you train a mature athlete, somebody who’s 25 and older, let’s say. And so I had to figure out how to repurpose some of those ideas.
And then I began to work with climbers as well because I understood– I had a strong climbing background myself. I was doing a lot of Alpine climbing at that time. And so I knew what was involved in that sport. And I’d say oh, well then we can just train this person, just like they were again, I’m gonna run that 10K in the park. And the number one thing that an endurance athlete needs for an endurance event is anything that lasts more than two minutes.
So, that covers an awful lot of territory. I mean, your 800-meter, that’s kind of that sort of a borderline event in terms of [??? 29:10]. But certainly by that time you get to the 1,500 and above, when you’re talking several minutes of effort, then the aerobic capacity is the predominant thing you have to train.
Because almost all the energy needed for that event is produced by the aerobic metabolism. So, that’s why I said that training for endurance is training for endurance. So, every endurance athlete needs to be focused on building aerobic capacity. And if they have a high aerobic capacity, then it’s pretty easy to get good performance out of somebody with a high aerobic capacity.
And there is no such thing as having too much aerobic capacity. It just doesn’t happen. You can have too much anaerobic capacity, and that as an endurance athlete, that will be a problem. And you can be too strong, but you can’t have too much aerobic capacity.
JESSE: See, and that’s exactly what I wrote down. As you’re talking, I was gonna ask you, thinking about juniors, in particular, my thought was, are you focusing predominantly on urban development versus like high power output?
SCOTT: Yeah, especially for kids. Cross country skiing is a very skill, technical skill dependent sport somewhat like swimming. It’s a little more challenging than swimming because you’re vertical, you’re on this gliding surface and you have to balance on it and still be able to produce power while you’re doing that. So, the big focus for junior development is on skills so that their movement economy gets much better.
I’m sure you’ve seen this when you’re in your triathlon, you can take someone who’s incredibly fit and throw them in a pool and all they do is make a lot of splashes. They don’t move very fast because there’s such a high technical skill component to swimming. It’s very much like that in cross country skiing.
I often see people who are very strong runners or strong cyclists get on skis, and they have a lot of horsepower but they just can’t figure out how to get it to propel them in very fast. And so it’s much easier to learn skills when you’re young, when your nervous system is really plastic. And so kids come along quite quickly, but that’s– my program always emphasized skills and emphasized… We didn’t do– When I’m thinking aerobic capacity, I’m thinking basic aerobic capacity, like the aerobic capacity below the aerobic threshold, so very low intensity.
These teenagers aren’t very well equipped. Even though they will respond to it, they’re not particularly well equipped for high intensity aerobic like what I would call aerobic power type work; zone four hot and high-intensity intervals– [crosstalk]
JESSE: Right. Yeah, I was thinking like lots of like zone two, maybe some zone three work, that kind of stuff.
SCOTT: Yeah, we did a lot of that. But what I also was a big believer, these kids are– I’m trying to hook up on the sport of cross country skiing. And skiing is a tough sport because doing it in the northern latitudes, it’s often in the dark after school. We’re out there with headlamps, and it’s cold, and their friends are in the gym playing volleyball and that sort of thing.
And so you gotta make these kids have a good time. So, we did a lot of games and relays with these young kids, which teaches a lot of skills and it also teaches speed. And I think that age-appropriate training, I believe is really important. And unfortunately, what I’ve seen in the sport of cross country skiing, which I’m no longer involved in, was that people were saying, oh, well look at how these World Cup skiers train. We should do the same thing with these 14-year-olds.
Well, that’s a recipe for disaster because yes, they will respond pretty quickly. But you’re forgetting the fact that those 25-Year-old World Cup Skiers have been doing this for 15 years, probably. And they have the aerobic base, they have the general muscular strength and coordination, they have all the skills. So, now is the time in their 20s when you can start piling on high-intensity hard work for them.
But if you do that to young kids, often I’ve seen it happen so much where by the time they should be moving into the adult range, college-level or whatever, they’re burned out. They’re fried from it from too much, like trying to train like an adult basically.
JESSE: Yeah. And so we come back to burnout and overtraining.
SCOTT: Yes, exactly.
JESSE: It’s a case of like, if it’s good for them, it must be good for me. It’s like no because in going through the book, I’m sure you’ve probably– we talked about Joe Friel. I have a copy of The Triathlete’s Training Bible. It stays on my shelf, not this shelf but my shelf downstairs. And I’ve gone through that a number of times, I’ve referenced it in various videos I’ve done. I just lost my train of thought. Totally gone.
SCOTT: That’s okay. That’s all right.
JESSE: Back up, we were talking about juniors.
JESSE: Talked about overtraining.
SCOTT: What about– Are you gonna edit this video when you’re done?
JESSE: No, [??? 34:27]
SCOTT: This goes live. Okay. All right. Well, I was thinking of a couple of thoughts I had about the junior thing. But I mean, maybe we don’t have a lot of audience that’s interested in how juniors train and what happens as you go through that very difficult transition period from teenager to adult, which corresponds with the University for most people, for athletes often. And the sport of cross country skiing is a collegiate NCAA sport. And so kids get recruited and they go to these colleges.
And I wrote a paper that was delivered at a ski coach conference and it didn’t make me very popular, but I called it ‘The Developmental Disconnect: How We are Ruining Our Young Skiers’. We’ve thrown them into what was essentially a professional level program, right when they’re still in this critical development stage, in their late teens and we throw them into a program that all it cares about is performance next week, the next beat or this season.
And so they can go from a nice, long, gradual trajectory approach of, okay, every season they’re getting a little stronger, they’re learning to ski better, all these things are coming together. And then you throw them into this program where yes, as a 18 or 19-year-old they’re training like some Norwegian national team member. They’re training 800 hours a year and they’re doing all this intensity.
And until– I was the first one to coach a former NCAA athlete cross country skier to a World Cup podium in cross country skiing. And that’s kind of a sad commentary on what happens to skiers in college is that because most of the best skiers, only a handful will make the leap from high school to the World Cup, just a few, three or four. Most of the rest get channeled through the NCAA programs. And they come out the other end just to shadow of what they were when they went in.
And so I felt like we were doing a huge disservice to these kids who they’re highly motivated, all they want to do is ski race, and their focus, they’re dedicated. And then they come out of these programs four years later, and sure, they’ve gotten a great education. But they are not going to be competitive on the World Cup after that. And so I sort of set up a different program for some of the athletes I worked with and could keep them on that same trajectory that then allowed them to move on to the World Cup.
Since this fellow that ended up on the World Cup after college, since him, we’ve now had a handful of others that have. But a tiny handful when you think of all the hundreds and hundreds of top cross country skiers that go into colleges, the fact that we’ve only had probably four or five that have ever stood on a podium in a World Cup kind of speaks volumes about that training approach.
JESSE: Yeah, I got my train of thought back. [?? 37:45] all coming together here is like, thinking about specificity for a particular athlete. And I’m thinking about Jim Freeman’s book, your book, I think you guys mentioned in the beginning, there’s no one right way to make a cake. The book is not a, this is how to train. It’s like, these are the things you need to know about training to figure out the thing that you need to do, right?
SCOTT: Yeah, exactly.
JESSE: And so in combination with the juniors in college, it’s like, coaches take this one size fits all approach and just say that they’re doing it, you’re gonna do it instead of focusing on, and this is what I talked about with Joe’s book. He focuses a lot on talking about limiters, the various limiters that we have as endurance athletes. Mine in particular is power. I’m not very good at producing high amounts of power, but I can go forever, but you stick me into a 400, I’m just gonna get toasted.
So, that’s one thing in his book that speaks to that’s my issue. So, the kind of workouts that are going to help me progress are not necessarily going to be the same kind of workouts were like, the other guys that were good at 400, they may need something different. And so then in college, we end up with both a one size fits all idea of everybody’s doing the same workout, regardless of what your limiters are. And then on top of that, let’s compete way too often and now we come back to overtraining.
SCOTT: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Well, I think that one of the things along those lines, it’s missed by an awful lot of people is the popular press, and it used to just be a few, excuse me, a few magazines, and now it’s all over the internet is here’s what so and so did for three months leading into breaking the world record/ With the implication being that, oh, if I go do that same thing, then I may not break the world record, but I’m going to become much, much better. And the fact, that just doesn’t work that way because it’s not what that person did in the last few months leading to their fantastic performance. It’s what they’ve done in the last 10 years that allowed them to do that last three months.
The world capacity of these athletes is so phenomenally high that when you look at some of the old workouts from Sebastian Coe, for instance, where you know he was doing, what was it, 3200s [??? 40:15] 32nd rest at 800-meter race pace? That’s just phenomenal, you know, who could do that? And everybody would say well, and he claimed and his father who wrote up the book about their training together, they thought that was one of the best workouts they did. And it probably was.
You can imagine it’s very, very specific to the event they’re working on. But how many people could even begin to do something like that and have the work capacity to handle it? So, it wasn’t that workout– That workout did put him in peak form. He did that workout the year that he went on and broke every record between 800 and 3,000 meters in the world and pretty phenomenal bunch of results. But it was what he had done for his whole life up to that point that gave him the capacity, not only to handle that kind of a workout but to flourish under that sort of extreme regimen. And most people are not going to have that.
And I feel like it’s a real disservice in the popular media to throw out, here’s what [??? 41:22] did for the last four or five months of his training before he broke two hours in the marathon. Well, it’s wonderful to read, and it’s very inspiring. But it’s also incredibly dangerous in the hands of– If you put that in the hands have a type-A personality who just wants to do more, but who doesn’t understand much about training, then you’re just– I feel it’s kind of irresponsible of journalists to toss that stuff out there as– I put it in the same category as those kinds of the men’s magazines and whatnot [??? 41:54] running your best 10K in six weeks. Yeah, maybe if you’ve never run a 10K, that might happen. But if it was that easy or it took that little time, why would these athletes be training 1,000 hours a year for 10 years? I mean, if you could do it in six weeks, why would you do all that?
JESSE: Yeah, it is– I feel like in the media cycle, there’s almost a necessity to produce articles like that. I mean, I have another show on the YouTube channel that I talked about running and my experience with running and I mention thoughts on coaching and workouts and those kind of things. And often I end up titling things like the number one secret to doing your fastest 5K or whatever. And I go on throughout the video and say, well, this is one thing you can look at, but also it depends on where you are.
So, it almost always comes with caveats because as I’ll say, a media personality. I’m overblowing my importance here. But you want to give tidbits of advice, but it’s almost impossible unless it’s me and you sitting here and you know my history or I know your history and I can give you specific advice. It’s almost impossible to do that. So, you end up with these potentially dangerous in the wrong hands prescriptions of workouts just to sell papers or gain eyeballs or whatever it is.
SCOTT: Sure. Yeah. I think one of the approaches I’ve taken with both these books, Training for the New Alpinism and Training for the Uphill Athlete, the reason I call them a manual is they are an instruction manual on how to create successful training programs for yourself. They’re not a cookbook. And I find that [??? 43:46] I’m sure you’ve seen them.
There are many cookbook type training books out there where you open it up and you skim through the page to the okay, I want to run a 15K cross country race or whatever it is, and here’s how to train for it, here’s all the workouts I need to do. Well, that would be great if everybody was exactly the same as everyone else. But we’re not. We’re coming into this with all sorts of different backgrounds.
Some people have extensive training histories in their youth like you did, or I did. And we’re going to adapt differently to training than somebody who’s 45 years old and has never run a step in their life. It’s gonna be very, very different types of training. And so what I’ve tried to do in both these books is start with what I would call some very fundamental principles. I mean, as you saw, there’s a physiology section in that book. It’s very simple, you know, anybody who’s had high school biology, I think, would be able to follow along and see where it’s going and how it works. Because I feel like you need to understand why you need to train the way we’re going to talk about in that book, and here’s the physiological basis for that.
And then I get into very heavily as you probably saw, a lot of ways of trying to help the reader or the self-coached athlete, first of all, identify their limiters like you’re talking about Joe Friel doing, and that’s very important. And for people who are at a fairly low level, they’re beginners like my junior cross country skiers, everything’s a limiter. And for them, almost anything they do is going to make them better.
As you get better and better, like what I’ve been, you know, working with an Olympian, it’s very hard to figure out what is keeping this person from going faster. It becomes a real challenge, and for me, it’s intellectually really fun, because I have to try to suss out by watching the athlete and paying attention to their training and their racing, I have to watch them in races and say, oh, okay, here’s potentially some low hanging fruit. Maybe we should address that and try this with our training.
But in general, the first thing is to identify those limiters. Then the next thing is to be able to focus on these fundamental qualities that make up your event and train those fundamental qualities. So, you need to look at the event and say, oh, this event requires this kind of speed, this kind of power and endurance, and then you can train– In my approach, we train those in different workouts in the base phase. We don’t bring a speed and endurance workout together until the final phase sort of like that workout I just mentioned with Sebastian Coe, where that workout was speed and endurance all combined into one workout. But he had spent years doing speed work and basic endurance work too before they started to bring that together.
And every training cycle, there will be a period when you do need to bring the speed, and what we call speed endurance workouts. We bring those two qualities of speed and endurance together because you have to do that for if you’re training for an event that involves speed and endurance. You just have to have that type of training, but it can’t dominate your training. And that’s a mistake that a lot of folks make is they go, well, if I want to get faster at running 5K, I should just go run 5Ks as hard as I can every day, because my training should be as specific as possible.
But that overlooks this fundamental quality issue, and it also overlooks that limiter issue we were just talking about. If your limiter is, let’s say, basic aerobic capacity, zone one in two, then going out and doing a 5K time trial every day, all that’s going to do is lower your aerobic capacity. It’s not going to raise it, it’s actually going to damage your aerobic system to do that kind of training.
And so it’s a little counterintuitive that sometimes you have to tell people they gotta train easier and slower if they want to go faster. And most people just want to jump– maybe it’s a product of our impatience or whatnot. But most people just want to go right to the good stuff, the sexy stuff, the YouTube video stuff, that kind of thing. They don’t want to go out there and spend thousands of hours a year training at zone one and two. Or not thousands but hundreds of hours a year training in zone one or two.
That’s kind of boring training actually and it doesn’t look very much like their event. So, they have a hard time understanding, well, if this doesn’t look like my event, how is it actually helping me? And so I spent a lot of time in the book talking about that so that people will understand why that base training is so important.
And then the other thing, a slight difference, I think, between this book and many others is I didn’t try to teach people how to monitor their own training and control it because that’s the job of a coach and most people are going to be self-coached. And so I give some ideas on what can you do because you’re the worst judge of, as you probably already know, anybody who’s self-coached themselves realizes that they’re the worst judge of how to coach themselves because you’ve got all sorts of emotional baggage, you’re bringing into this.
There’s the ego, there’s the well, my plan says I’m supposed to go do five by one mile at this pace or something today, but my legs are really shot. But if I don’t do that I’m gonna feel guilty. I mean, there’s all that kind of stuff and what a coach does is they bring this voice of reason in and say you know, you’re not ready for that workout today. We should do a half-hour recovery jog or spin on the bike today instead, and get you back to where you can absorb that sort of training. And that’s a real struggle even for a coach, but it’s very difficult for the self-coached athlete.
So, I’ve tried to give people some help on what to be looking for, how long these things should take to recover from, what should you feel like, how can you test your preparedness to begin training again and that sort of stuff. So, some real tools, but again, it’s more of a manual on like, if you read this and you understand these principles, you have a pretty good chance of being able to construct a very viable plan for yourself. But it’s not going to be easy. People who buy this book often say, “Oh my God, it’s like a textbook.” And yeah, you [??? 50:07] roll up your sleeves. You have to roll up your sleeves and really want to study this stuff. It’s not a quick read.
JESSE: Yeah. And the whole idea of self-coaching is so difficult as you mentioned, the kind of emotional baggage. So, having those, I’ll say these tests or indicators to say, okay, we need to back off or okay, we’re fine, is so crucial when you don’t have an outside voice. Because, and I’ve talked about this with other guests. And you’ve I’m sure experienced this is that not always do how you feel when you wake up in the morning, have a bearing on how a workout goes.
Sometimes you feel crummy and the workout goes great, or you feel great and your workout goes terribly. So, having those external indicators that can say, Hey, this is going on, maybe we should back off and not feeling guilty about it is like that– I mean, that’s what the book in itself just having that it will save you so much time, pain, headache, and make you better in the long run.
SCOTT: Yeah, I’ve definitely experienced all that stuff. And I think that being– obviously, that’s one of a coach, as I mentioned in the very first segment that we talked about, one of a coach’s most important roles is to restrain the athlete from hurting themselves and overdoing it. Because these athletes are type-A, they are going to be tugging at the leash all the time. And it’s our job as a coach to make sure that they understand or we could take the blame. We can say hey, today we’re not doing that.
I mean, I have with these high-level– Olympic level athletes, I’ve been standing beside them when they’re training and just said nope, it’s not happening. And can see by your body language, I can see you know, hear. We’re checking blood lactate at the end of a warm-up, and I can say, okay your pace is slow, your lactate is high, you’re not prepared for this workout today. And we’ll call it at the end of the warm-up or even partway through the warm-up, I can just see this is not going to be the day that they can go out and do this high-performance workout.
And we’ll call it and say, okay, we’ll come back in a couple days and try this again. In the meantime, you’re just going to be doing some lighter recovery work or that sort of thing. And I think for a lot of people, having a coach there that could say to you, no, you’re not doing that, it relieves them of that sense of guilt, or am I just being a wuss, am I just being a weenie because I don’t want to do this? Which is very rare.
And I’ll often tell people, again, because of this, the kind of personality type that we’re dealing with, in the sports is, if you have even the slightest inkling that maybe you’re not really very psyched like to go train that day, you should consider that your body’s trying to tell you something there [??? 53:04] yellow if not a red flag. Because most people are just hungry to get out there and get after it.
And if you don’t feel like it then that’s your body– Our body doesn’t have a very good way of communicating and we have such a– most people have such a strong willpower like you said with the way you improved a minute in the 5K was a lot of willpower. And willpower will take you a long way but can also be your worst enemy.
JESSE: Right. Right. Before we run out of time, I want to ask you about a section of the book. And this is crucial to any endurance athlete is fat-adaptation, getting our bodies to burn more fat for fuel. Please correct me if I misquote you. I think it’s mentioned talking about changing your diet slightly to increase the amount of fat you’re taking in to help along that cycle of fat adaptation. Is there a limit to that? Could we just, in that if we want to follow that train of thread, can we just cut out carbs entirely and say all I’m going to eat is fat and protein? Or is there a point where you say, okay, that’s not it, you do need carbs for that fat adaptation cycle?
SCOTT: Yeah. Well, this whole nutrition thing, as can be a can of worms. But I’ll start off by saying this is that– so Zach Bitter holds the US 100-Mile record. He’s a carnivore. Scott Jurek is one of the Grand Old Man of US ultra running. He’s been around forever and he’s a vegan. So, there’s two guys at the opposite ends of the food spectrum that are both highly successful in their sport.
So, what I think is important to take into consideration, we are omnivores and we can adapt to all kinds of diets. So, I don’t think it needs to be– I don’t think it’s rocket science, first of all. I don’t think it needs to be approached with some sort of religious fervor that some people bring into the whole dietary nutrition argument.
And I have a few rules with regards to that whole fat-adaptation thing is, if you’re training enough volume, and I’ll get to what enough is in a minute, if you’re training a high enough volume, you can pretty much eat anything. I mean, I work with vegetarians that eat really high carbohydrate diets, and they are super fat-adapted, but they’re training 20 hours a week.
And so they’re going to be fat-adapted because they’re kind of chronically glycogen depleted. They don’t ever really refill their stores during a normal training block of time. Especially if we’re in a base period, we’re trying to build fitness, I don’t care if they’re carrying this sort of a low level of fatigue with them most of the time and a chronic glycogen depletion. Because glycogen depletion is one of the biggest stimuli for aerobic development.
Now, if you run out of glycogen, those muscle cells go wow, we better create some more mitochondria and some more aerobic enzymes so that we can produce energy from fat. And so it’s a big spur to aerobic development to have this glycogen depletion.
And so I mentioned the 20-hour mark. But what I have seen now coaching hundreds of athletes for years, working with lots of different people at different age groups, is that when people are doing less than about eight hours of aerobic base training, zone one and two work in a week, then you can kind of bump-start that fat adaptation process by restricting carbohydrates. Once you get over about 12, 14 hours a week, then I think it’s much less important, the carb restriction. So, that’s kind of my rule of thumb.
And if you’re in that gray area and of course, there’s going to be a lot of individuality. But if you’re in that gray area, let’s say you’re training 10-hours a week, then the thing you have to do is an experiment. Find out how you handle fasted training in the morning.
Get up in the morning, go out for a two-hour run. And if you are bonking at the end of that two-hour run, I mean, assuming you’re staying in zone one or two, or you are just absolutely famished and have to eat that Clif Bar or goo before you get it done, then you’re probably not very well fat-adapted. A lot of these professional mountain athletes I work with, they can go out and do five hours hard with several thousand vertical feet running in the mountains and come back and not even be hungry because they’re very highly fat-adapted.
And as far as the dietary manipulation goes, as I pointed out earlier, I try to keep it pretty simple for folks. Yes, a ketogenic diet will do that to you. It will cause you to become fat-adapted for sure. It does work. I’ve done quite a lot of work with navy seals. And some of those guys are really into ketogenic diets, but they’re also an incredibly highly disciplined group of people. And most people are not going to be able to adhere to a real ketogenic diet.
And as you probably know, that first week to 10 days of getting into ketosis is not very much fun. And it’s an unpleasant experience and then finding when you’re in ketosis, then yeah, things roll along pretty well. But let’s say you then go to your grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving and you have the pumpkin pie and the mashed potatoes and you’ve fallen off that ketogenic bandwagon, you have to go through that whole process, again, of getting into ketosis, which is–
So, most people aren’t just– for social reasons, are probably not going to be able to actually stick with a ketogenic– You’re going to be that person at the party that people are gonna go, I’m not gonna invite that guy because he won’t eat anything kind of deal. And so, in order to avoid that, I think you can get the same effect– I mean ketogenic diets, I think work well for people that aren’t– work better, let’s say for people who are not exercising.
But if you’re an endurance athlete, you might experiment with it. I have some endurance athletes that I’ve coached that have tried ketogenic diets. Most of them don’t stick to them. But I think you can get virtually all if not all, the same effect if you’re training a reasonably high volume of aerobic base work and do a slight carbohydrate reduction. Now, instead of using the traditional American food pyramid, I tell people just shoot for like one third, one third, one third with carbs– [crosstalk]
JESSE: Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to do now is just move towards that.
SCOTT: …just start with something pretty simple. Yeah, it doesn’t need to be too crazy. I don’t advocate measuring everything. I just think that again, that’s gonna be a level of complication that most people won’t be able to adhere to. And diet has to be sort of a lifestyle thing, something you do every single day. And if it involves getting out of scale or reading the ingredients list with a magnifying glass, that’s not going to last very long for most people. They just won’t have the wherewithal to do that.
JESSE: Yeah. So, as we kind of wind down, there’s a question I’m asking everybody this year because it really kind of transcends what each individual person does. So, the question I’m asking everybody is, what do you think the purpose of sport is?
SCOTT: I think it is– Well, I think there’s more than one purpose, but for each individual, I believe it is self-actualization. You are the only person really that has agency over yourself and your actions. And there’s many ways you can express that. I mean, you could paint pictures, you could play the piano, or you could do triathlons. But in some way, I believe that those– that self-actualization is a really nurturing part of the human spirit. And it’s something that we all seek otherwise we wouldn’t have artists and we wouldn’t have athletes. And so I think on an honor and individual basis, that’s really the purpose of it.
And competition is a very simple, easy way to compare yourself, to see if you, even if it’s competition with yourself, which of course is the healthiest competition [??? 01:01:51] obviously in the race you toe the line with other people you’d like to beat them. But if you perform at your best and you have a PR or whatever it is. And you can say, whoa, yeah, I didn’t beat so and so because that’s so and so had the race of their life today. You could have the race of your life that same day, but they still beat you because they were better. But that doesn’t diminish your own personal experience, or I believe it shouldn’t.
And this is something I worked a lot with when I was coaching juniors is don’t just directly compare– It’s fun to win the race. Everybody likes winning the race. But don’t compare yourself that way to other people. Compare yourself to the person you used to be, what you were a week ago or a year ago, and I think that is helpful too. And I think also the other thing I was going to say that I believe sport does is in a way, I think we still need heroes in our culture.
And so when we read about [??? 01:02:51] who can’t be just jaw-droppingly impressed by here’s a guy who runs a two-hour– a thing that people thought would never happen, a two-hour marathon, under two-hour marathon. And you look at what that guy’s done for training, and he seems like a– from everything I’ve read and seen seems like a wonderful human being. How can you not be impressed by that and not think, wow, what a cool thing? And so, I guess that’s for me, that’s the other part of what sport does is it motivates us and inspires us.
JESSE: I haven’t got [??? 01:03:34] answer yet. I like that a lot. Scott, where can people find you? Where can they pick up the book if they want to pick up, want to get in touch with you?
SCOTT: Yeah. Okay. So our website is UphillAthlete.com, so pretty easy. The book’s available on Amazon. It’s also available as a signed edition on our website, but it’s much cheaper on Amazon. I have to say that. I pay almost what Amazon does for our books, Both our books are published by Patagonia Press. So, yeah, they can find us there. And there’s a wealth of information on the website. There’s over 250 free articles on training and there’s a forum that people can ask questions on. So, all that’s available for free.
JESSE: And as we’ve mentioned multiple times, it is a manual, not just this is what you do. So, even if, like in my case, I’m not really an appeal athlete, aside from the occasional venture to Manitou Springs, there’s so much here that’s applicable regardless of what you’re doing. So, well worth picking it up if you can. Thanks for spending time with me today, Scott.
SCOTT: I really appreciate it, Jesse. It was great chatting with you. Thanks.